Inconvenient Prophet

Jayaprakash Narayan
Jayaprakash Narayan

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray

1902: Born in Saran, Bihar.
1922: Leaves for the US. Is exposed to Marx, radical ideas. 1929: Joins Congress at Nehru's behest.
1948: Forms Socialist Party.
1953: Pioneers the merger of the Krishak Mazdoor Praja Parties.
1954: Quits politics. Joins Bhoodan movement of Vinoba Bhave.
1974-75: Leads mass movements in Bihar, Gujarat and People's March to Parliament. Emerges as political messiah during Emergency.
1979: Dies in Patna.

It is said when he was being taken away at dead of night on June 25, 1975, a bewildered Jayaprakash Narayan looked out of the windows of the police car, unable to understand why the somnolent city showed no signs of exploding in massive outrage at the blow that Indira Gandhi had dealt to democracy.

The story is probably apocryphal; but it might well be true. JP did not fail the people. The people failed him. Posterity will remember him -- if at all -- as the apostle of one more revolution that never was.

The faithful regard him as the best prime minister India never had. Like Mohandas Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia, he declined to seek or hold public office. Others saw him as an extra-constitutional centre of power like Sanjay Gandhi. The wits even claimed there were three founts of authority during Morarji Desai's troubled prime ministership -- the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Jaslok Sabha, the last named after the Mumbai hospital where JP spent much of his time.

He was heir to an ancient and formidable legacy. Bihar's Magadha heartland, where JP was born, "not only produced relentless fighters and exterminators of kings" but "hearkened at the same time to the devout teachings of Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha". Magadha was the scene of the Buddha's enlightenment; Ajatsatru, who waged war on Buddhism, was born there.

JP's circuitous career did not betray this complex heritage. He penetrated beyond party dynamics to grasp, as few other leaders did, some of the causes of India's stagnation -- education was only "an escalator to reach the top", the middle class would always block systemic reform, an opposition victory alone would change nothing. But there was something of the gadfly in the man who combined the qualities of sage and strategist, who took the trodden path from communism to conservatism, who was quick to point out that it was illogical of Jawaharlal Nehru to expect capitalists to create his socialist elysium, but failed to recognise the dichotomy of his own crusade to reform society by destroying all its established institutions.

Like John Foster Dulles interrupting the full spate of Nehru's thunder against military pacts to ask why India did not join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, JP saw no contradiction in expecting the government to participate in his programme of "struggle and reconstruction, confrontation and cooperation".

Idealism ruled his life. He was an extreme nationalist by the time he was 14, taking cold water baths, wearing only a khadi dhoti and crude village-made sandals. Throwing away his school books, he refused to attend a British-style college in protest against the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. But the seven years (1922-29) that he spent in the US (where he soaked up Das Kapital) must have had a profound effect: the theories of Soviet conspiracy in India, especially in Mrs Gandhi's Congress, that he articulated might have come straight out of a Central Intelligence Agency primer.

Tested in the fires of British Indian jails where he spent eight years, and in conventional politics for nearly 30, he disagreed with the fundamentals of Nehru's Fabian constitutionalism, being convinced that the whole of India could never be governed from a single centre. His attempts to topple Nepal's absolutist oligarchy demonstrated that he had outgrown the Ohio University professor who had found him "aggressive in thought but not in action".

JP founded the Socialist Party in 1948 but took the crucial decision to renounce electoral politics six years later. This caused widespread dismay for many had hoped that he would become prime minister, blending Nehru's administrative and diplomatic skills with Gandhi's vision and commitment to the multitude. But realising the limitations of parliamentary democracy in India, JP joined Vinoba Bhave and spent the next 20 years "searching for some other way".

It was not a fruitful exercise. When Biju Patnaik invited him in 1973 to lead an all-India front as an alternative to the Congress, JP replied wisely that the initiative lacked a positive programme. The need was not a change of guard at the top but to fight oppression and the destruction of civil liberties; to solve the problems of unemployment and inflation; to revitalise planning and reform the electoral process.

But the mass movements of 1974-75 in Gujarat and Bihar were no more coherent and focused than Patnaik's Bharatiya Lok Dal, even if they brought down or paralysed state regimes. JP's own glimpse of the Holy Grail of a new India was not vouchsafed to the lusty crowds that chanted Sampoorna kranti ab naaraa hai, bhaavi itihas hamaara hai (total revolution is our slogan; future history belongs to us). Some of his followers were the lumpen proletariat, attracted as always by the prospect of pickings from turmoil. At another level, his movement bestowed respectability on Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh elements that had lost credibility. Few shared his perception of the governmental apparatus, reforming itself under external pressure.

That was not JP's fault. The knowledge of his own temperament that had prompted him to eschew politics in 1954 should have warned him against what was in effect backdoor entry into the same arena two decades later. It identified him with the narrow-based forces that he had spurned earlier and enabled Mrs Gandhi to accuse him of being a tool in the hands of a khichri coalition whose one-point programme was her removal.

The Janata Party's squabbles were a reminder that she did not enjoy a monopoly of self-seeking intrigue. JP tried to make the best of things by nominating Morarji Desai to be prime minister, but this involvement in murky politicking was a far cry from the sampoorna kranti (total revolution) of his dreams.

JP's diagnosis of what is wrong with India remains as true in the new millennium as it was 40 years ago. But not his prescription. Judged on the touchstone of what he set out to do, his career can't be regarded a success. Nobody knew this better than JP himself. As he wrote in his prison diary, he tried "to bring about ever so little change in government policy" through conferences but the effort was wasted even in Nehru's time. "The leviathan went its own way."

While a politician in office may not -- usually does not -- do anything for the country, a politician out of office can't. If he is of the stature of a JP, India sets him on a pedestal, and ignores his precepts. An effective way of neutralising inconvenient prophets.

Author of Bihar Shows the Way, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is former editor, The Statesman, and editor-in-residence, East-West Center, Honolulu.



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